Alpine’s Esports Series, hosted on Assetto Corsa Competizione, provided a somewhat weighted duel last year between James Baldwin and George Boothby.
The former came out on top by just nine points yet, considering the latter’s illness in the second round at Circuit Paul Ricard, it should have been closer still.
Sadly, Boothby was not going to right the wrongs of twelve months prior – his absence from the first round of the 2023 season was notable. Reigning champion Baldwin would be in attendance, however, alongside other familiar names like Marko Pejic, Luke Whitehead and Michael Romagnoli. 2021 champion Jaroslav Honzík, aka Jardier, also returned to the grid.
Once again the top prize on the line was to be a test drive in a real-world Alpine GT4 machine.
In spite of all the familiar names, it was a new one taking pole position for the Sprint. Dennis Schöniger of Williams Esports pipped Baldwin by just a tenth and, as it turned out, the man with a target on his back would be surrounded by fresh faces.
The second row was to be manned by Vojtech Fiala and Maciej Malinowski, Dominik Blajer rounding out the top five.
Conversely, it was a rather disastrous qualifying for many returning pilots. Whitehead proved to be the best behind Baldwin thanks to a lap quick enough for seventh. Meanwhile, Romagnoli was down in twelfth and Pejic seriously underperforming for seventeenth.
Baldwin, of course, was the heavy favourite even without pole position. His race could have ended incredibly early, however, as contact with Schöniger sent him into a quick-witted recovery mode. The Brit remained second but was surely thankful just to still be in one piece.
Whitehead showed his experience to slalom through to fourth but would get caught out by the extended Mistral Straight. Malinowski reclaimed the position and Blajer was threatening to do the same but for some robust defence from the Veloce driver throughout Sector 3.
Following an extended period of calm, Malinowski was to break the silence with the sound of crunching doors. His attack on Fiala’s podium place came to an abrupt end, the Pole sending the Czech towards the Turn 2 barriers. It was a no-brainer for the stewards who awarded Maciej with a five-second time penalty.
Although a smaller penalty for longer races, in this fifteen-minute sprint, it crippled his points-scoring efforts. Whitehead picked up the pieces to enjoy a podium for himself whilst Schöniger never looked back to take a very impressive debut victory.
Alpine Esports 2023, Round 1, Sprint Race results
- Dennis Schöniger – 8 Laps
- James Baldwin +2.432
- Luke Whitehead +5.429
- Dominik Blajer +5.724
- Tinko van der Velde +6.003
- Vojtech Fiala +6.757
- Charlie Crossland +7.532
- Kamil Pawlowski +7.893
- Geert Fischer +8.153
- Maciej Malinowski +8.812
If Schöniger’s evening had not been impressive enough, then qualifying for the Feature Race would silence any doubters. Pole position by almost a full four-tenths blew everyone out of the water. Fiala was closest, pushing Baldwin off the front row by just two thousandths of a second.
Tinko van der Velde, following a rather under-the-radar affair and a fifth-place finish, would line up fourth ahead of Geert Fischer. The Dutchman had ultimately become the first driver not to score points in the Sprint so was sure to enjoy a far better starting position this time around.
Or so you would think… Fischer’s opening lap was scrappy and it was not enjoyable given a delta loss of two positions thanks to Blajer and Charlie Crossland.
Behind, all the focus was on Michael Romagnoli. First, he would find himself punted by Whitehead – an action which would cost the Brit dearly after receiving a five-second penalty. Then came a contender for save of the season as Malinowski muscled his way through at Signes.
As for the lead battle? Well, that was over before it ever began. Fiala’s race pace was significantly slower than Schöniger’s and, thus, it was imperative that Baldwin make an early pass to chase down the German. Minute by minute elapsed until finally, with just three of them left in the race, van der Velde had seen enough.
The Dutchman, who had been shadowing the pair for the entire race, made a rather clumsy move through Signes. Baldwin responded in kind at Beausset with both cars off the track. It was a tough call for the stewards who ultimately left the incidents be. Van der Velde would go on to lock in a podium behind Fiala and the runaway Schöniger.
Alpine Esports 2023, Round 1, Feature Race results
- Dennis Schöniger – 13 Laps
- Vojtech Fiala +6.999
- Tinko van der Velde +8.600
- James Baldwin +8.911
- Dominik Blajer +9.565
- Maciej Malinowski +10.230
- Charlie Crossland +10.700
- Geert Fischer +10.893
- Lukas Mateja +11.765
- Luke Whitehead +14.923